Dr. Anisa Hassouna: leader of charity work, cancer conqueror: “Love saved me”

Tamer Farhat
16 Min Read

That is what Anisa Hassouna was told, but she insisted on  fighting and travelled to receive her treatment then returned – much stronger and fresher this time.

Having told her story in a book and on TV, she became an icon and an idol.

Anisa Hassouna is a writer, a political researcher, and a member of the Egyptian parliament. She was the executive director of Magdy Yakoub’s foundation for heart illnesses and research. She was also the director general of the Egypt International Economic Forum, as well as member of the American Chamber of Commerce.

Dr. Anisa is the first woman to be elected as a secretary general of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs. She was chosen by Arabian Business in 2014 on its annual list for the 100 strongest Arab women in the world.

Daily News Egypt interviewed her to discuss with her politics, economics, and parliament affairs as well as her journey fighting against cancer, the transcript for which is below, lightly edited for clarity:

How did you start in charity work?

It started in 2009, and I greatly benefited from it. It was by mere coincidence. When I was working at Magdy Yakoub’s Heart Centre in Aswan and I met Dr. Magdy Yakoub, he asked me about my experience in the medical field. I told him that I get sick a lot and that this is my experience, but I learned so much later and enjoyed the work a lot.

What are the requirements for charitable work?

Honesty and sincerity. When you are sincere, people feel that, and they even offer you help. You must have transparency and allow people to understand how their money is used.

Do you think that the lack of transparency is the cause for 57357 hospital’s issue with writer Waheed Hamed?

Certainly, and the ministry of social solidarity should have announced all the facts with transparency so that people understand everything, but unfortunately that is not what happened.

I demanded that the committee formed by the ministry announce the results of the investigations immediately, and prohibit using the money of donors in wrongful ways.

How is Dr. Magdy Yakoub now that you have worked with him for years?

He is a man of great morals and is only concerned about his patients and their health, therefore I never had a grudge or was mad at him when I left the foundation.

How did you receive the news of your cancer diagnosis?

I was a shocked and I started denying it. I had an infinite number of questions in my head and not a moment of peace. I kept wondering: Why me? What I did I do to deserve this? Will I leave my children, grandchildren, husband, home and all the things I love? Why do people not feel that I am a cancer patient? Was my feeling of weakness a reason why my immunity got weak too?

All these questions remained unanswered, and I was close to breaking down, but I saw spiritual proofs that life would go on normally even after someone leaves or gets sick, and that I must fight alone for my life, to stay in my children and grandchildren’s lives, for my husband, and the moments of victory and breakingdowns. I documented my experience in my book “Without a Warning”.

What made you write the book?

First, my husband who kept encouraging me from day one and reassured me that I will be okay again. Second, my grandchildren who were keen on understanding what is going on with me, and third, my youngest daughter who recommended I write the book for others to learn from me and help others conquer their illnesses.

What was the book’s message?

It was a message of gratitude and thanks for my family because they helped me beat my illness. My husband travelled with me to Germany for the surgery and when I returned to Cairo he looked after me himself with so much attention and care; he refused that a nurse would do that for me.

Another important message of the book is warning readers from the effect of psychological stress. Cancer viciously attacked me after I was fired from the Heart Foundation where I worked as an executive director, right after I was appointed in parliament. I felt very sad because I had never failed to do the duties required from me, and I believed in what I did for the patients. Drowning in grief may easily result in negative consequences on health level, as was the case with me.

There is also an awareness message in the book. There are many wrong health habits we practice, such as eating lots of processed meat and not doing any sports. I wanted also to stress that family communication and support are just as important as medications and surgical procedures.

Have you tried to help patients more after your illness?

Of course. The illness opened my eyes to so much, including the absence of periodic examinations for women, and I still demand providing women in Egypt with at least a free examination once a year. Lots of women die with cancer without even knowing they had it because they do not have the funds for a medical examination. I am also working on donations  from businesspersons to build hospitals specialised in cancer treatment which attacks only women. In Egypt there is only one hospital for treating women with cancer. There must also be hospitals for uterus cancer because now there are several cases that are on the waiting list to get into the Oncology Institute. In order for me to get the treatment I needed, I had to sell the flat I inherited from my late father, but many other people would not have any money to receive treatment, therefore, more hospitals must be available.

What is your advice for cancer patients?

There is hope. You could get very lucky. You must hold on to that hope and enjoy all the moments that may never come back, because only God knows what tomorrow brings.

What is the difference between health care in Egypt and Germany?

In Germany, there is so much accuracy at everything. You would not -for example- find a phone with a patient or a doctor, and they find no shame in saying “I do not know” if they really do not have an answer to your questions. Also, everyone there is very specialised. The nurse taking the blood sample from you is different from the one helping you with taking medications, and it is impossible to find a nurse who takes money from you, because they receive high wages and do not need to resort to such ways. This is why, since my return, I have been demanding increasing the wages of nurses.

Do you remember the moment you were chosen by Arabian Business as one of the 100 strongest Arab women in the world?

Of course I do, because it was a surprise. When I received the email, I thought it was sent by mistake, but then I was very happy and proud, and I know it is all thanks to my work in charity.

Were you expecting being in parliament?

No, and I saw predictions in newspapers and just looked at them the way all regular readers would.

How do you evaluate the parliament’s performance so far?

The parliament has lots of competent individuals, but the government does not pay attention to them. Some laws were approved, and I support them, such as the investment, women, and civil service laws, even though they have not been activated until now.

How do you see the laws of economic reform?

I  completely support them even though they are very difficult. I understand they are the accumulations of long decades that someone should have done something about, which is what president Al-Sisi is doing now.

What about the personal status law which is creating controversy especially in hosting?

We have not seen the law until now, but I have stressed before that the hosting law protects children and their dignity as a humane right for them  and their  parents, but this must happen without affecting the child’s need of his mother, according to the law.

The personal status laws are inherently problematic, with so many details that require looking at the reality first in order to solve them. The only reference to consider is the child’s best interest.

Now, the parliament has more than a single draft law regarding personal status, and they are all concerned with equality. I do not advocate a certain law, but I look at the child’s best interest as the top priority.

I will certainly not allow children to be used as a means of pressure between two parties. Children are the future of this country, so we will always work on making sure they are brought up in a healthy environment between parents after the divorce.

Do you like the parliament’s role in this phase?

What I do not like is the parliament’s waiting for government projects. The parliament’s right is to propose laws, and like the rest of my colleagues, I proposed three laws, but they were not discussed or approved yet. It is not acceptable that a parliament awaits government projects only.

In my opinion, legislations must also be passed  from the parliament not only the government.

What is the reason for that?

I do not know, but parliament is named  through elections and represents Egyptians, and this must be respected. A simple example is a project I submitted requiring all shops to install surveillance cameras. This is necessary, especially that we are fighting terrorism and for security reasons, as all countries of the world apply this system now. I found out that the government has submitted nearly the same project then withdrew it later, and I do not know why. I do not know why the law I proposed was not issued, despite the approval of the legislative committee.

Is the political situation affecting the role of the parliament?

Yes, the parliament needs different voices that work for the country’s best interest even if they come with different views. Where are political parties like Al Wafd and Free Egyptians?

How do you see the case of Jamal Khashoggi?

The issue has many dimensions. He is a human being at the end of the day, who entered the consulate of his country, which is supposed to be the safest place for anyone who is Saudi Arabian. Aside from any political views, this case is shocking and terrifying.

Does the case have other dimensions?

Of course, it has a very opportunistic political dimensions for political reasons and any parties trying to make strategic, political and economic gains from something like that. These dimensions seem to never end, and this does not go with the scarcity of a human life. Qatar has also played a shameful role exploiting a human’s life for political purposes. As someone who worked in diplomacy, I am particularly sensitive to such a crime.

How do you evaluate the Turkish stance?

I was shocked to hear Erdogan’s speech, when everyone waited for him to reveal the truth and he disappointed everyone and said nothing. The news blackout is mainly Turkish.

Would this case make some changes in the region?

Yes, but quietly, not dramatically. There is already talks about the need for change and reform in the Arab region.

Regarding foreign affairs, how are relations between Egypt and America?

The Egyptian-American relations are not steady nor are they at their best. I believe more visits are required, as well as dialogues. The relations are strategic and neither parties can let go of the other. American investments also must increase in Egypt, because our country needs that, and economic stability will affect the peace, and security in the region.

What about the talks about American pressure on Egypt?

This will just continue to happen. Egypt is always under pressure given its position by all parties because it is such an important number in all equations. As for Egyptian-American relations, I always blame the American side. Egypt has offered so much to the region’s stability, and plays a major role in the surrounding issues.

How can you create balance between your work in parliament, your writings and your family with your illness?

Family comes first, and then work comes second. Even though Friday is my only day off during the week, I am always keen on going with my grandchild to her practice on this day. Also, the pride of my husband and daughter in what I do always helps me in balancing  my responsibilities.

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